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Dysfunction drags on at Coorong council
A no-confidence motion in Mayor Paul Simmons last month was "manifestly unfair", councillors have been told; but they still can't agree on a way forward.
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A no-confidence motion in Mayor Paul Simmons last month was “manifestly unfair”, Coorong councillors have heard, but they still can’t agree on a way forward.
At their March meeting, councillors voted 4-3 to express a lack of confidence in the mayor over his handling of alleged bullying within the council.
However, a review by law firm Kelledy Jones found that the vote – brought on by Cr Neville Jaensch without warning – had denied Cr Simmons an opportunity to respond to his accusers.
Instead, the mayor had been forced to declare a conflict of interest and leave the council chamber.
Councillors met this Tuesday to discuss how they might make things right.
But they couldn’t agree on whether to take back the no-confidence motion – a vote on doing just that tied 4-4, with Cr Simmons absent due to illness.
What happens now?
The review noted that no-confidence motions had no real meaning, and did not require the mayor to resign or step aside.
But councillors did vote to take two actions.
They asked the council to publish four emails from Councillors Lisa Rowntree, Tracy Hill and Glynis Taylor which were at the heart of the bullying allegations that led to the no-confidence motion.
The emails will be published on the council’s website in the coming days, with the names of members of the public removed.
They also asked the council to publish a complete rundown of all the legal costs it had accrued since the 2018 election.
Staff will not be able to complete that report until at least July.
Legal review prompts 90 minutes of bickering
Councillors received the Kelledy Jones review at a special meeting last Tuesday.
The review did not make any concrete recommendations, aside from suggesting all councillors take a refresher course on their conflict of interest obligations.
Councillors spent most of last week’s meeting hashing out their differences, using loaded language to describe one another and refusing to apologise for past wrongs.
They argued about the potential for private defamation lawsuits between councillors, whether a councillor could weaponise conflict of interest rules to force rivals out of a meeting, whether the mayor recorded his private phone calls, whether accusing someone of bullying and harrassment could itself count as bullying and harrassment ... on and on they went.
Cr Hill suggested that the Team for Change councillors were hypocrites when it came to transparency and accountability – “their motives were not entirely altruistic and have contributed to the toxic divisiveness the council now finds itself in”.
Cr Neville Jaensch argued that the council’s problems stemmed from members’ unwillingness to apologise to each other – but stopped short of apologising for the unfair no-confidence motion.
Cr Taylor accused Cr Hill of turning Team for Change members’ own “banter” against them by sharing private messages from years ago in an effort to discredit them.
In the end, though, they all – seemingly – resolved not to file any more formal code of conduct complaints against each other, and to try and get through the seven months remaining in the council term without further dramas.
“I think it’s about time we wound this up,” Cr Jeff Arthur said.
“There’s been enough trashing the Coorong council name now.”
Cr Taylor agreed the council chamber had been a sad and sorry scene lately.
“We’re almost at the end of a term and we’ve still not moved forward as a group,” she said.
“The (upcoming) election ... is the only way to stop this eternal bickering and provide a better service to ratepayers.”
Councillors agree on the need for transparency, but not much else
Then came this week’s meeting.
It was Cr Rowntree who suggested revoking the no-confidence motion, which she described as an attempt to bring the council and its mayor into disrepute.
But a tied vote, 4-4, means the motion will stay on the books for now.
Cr Hill argued that the issue which had sparked the whole episode – her bullying allegation against Cr Rowntree – had still not been dealt with.
Councillors eventually voted in favour of publishing the four emails which Cr Hill had previously alleged included “abuse, bullying and derogatory comments” about her.
Several councillors said they had been asked about the emails since last month’s meeting.
Releasing them would allow members of the public to make up their own minds, Cr Sharon Bland said.